Reconsidering Youth Sports: What Happens When the Lights Go Off?

“Sports don’t build character. They reveal it.”  – John Wooden

It is 8:15 at night. The leaves have just started changing as winter approaches. Austin is standing in right field, playing with the grass as he waits for a ball to come his way. His day started shortly after six that morning as his parents shuttled him out of bed and his mother dropped him off at school on her way to work.  With parents working until near six this evening, and a brother’s practice across town, dinner was in the car tonight as they visited the nearby drive-thru.  Austin yawns.  It is grandparent’s day tomorrow for his 2nd grade class, and he and his classmates have been working on a few songs to sing.  It will be 9:30 before he gets into bed tonight, and then up again early for school.

Austin is part of a growing trend of youth who are playing sports at a younger age, and often specializing year round. Gone for most is the era in which early athletics began impromptu in the backyard and on the local public courts and fields.  Today, preschool soccer leagues abound, and parents are increasingly transporting their kids early in the morning and late at night to the next practice or competition.  All-stars leagues, and secondary seasons, like fall ball, have become the norm, not the exception.  High school games, once reserved for those in attendance, are now being televised nationally on ESPN and other sports outlets.  You Tube links of the latest athletic prodigy or an outrageous middle school game winning shot increasingly find themselves going viral.  Youth sports have become an industry and a culture, and many parents aspire for their kids to become the next Lebron James or Peyton Manning just as their kids imagine the same.  Most parents just worry that if their kids don’t start sports early, they will never catch up and be left out altogether.

It is estimated that parents in the United States spend an average of 671 dollars per year on sports-related costs, whether it is for uniforms or registration fees. This does not count the costs of time and travel.  One in five parents spends over 1,000 dollars, per child per year.  Youth sports in the U.S. are now a five billion dollar industry.  Meanwhile, reports continue to flood in about increased injuries in younger kids, some with long-term complications.  A recent CBS story highlighted the heightened risk of concussions, especially as kids play certain sports, like tackle football, at an earlier age. Sports injuries have become the 2nd leading cause of emergency room visits for children and adolescents.  As noted in the linked article, “Overuse injuries such as stress fractures, tendinitis, bursitis, apophysitis and osteochondral injuries of the joint surface were rarely seen when children spent more time engaging in free play.” These injuries are largely caused by repetitive, intense training with specific muscles groups. A recent report from the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine cautioned that intensive, early training in young kids is associated with higher rates of overuse injuries and burnout, and therefore encourage diversification at younger ages to offset this trend.

Meanwhile, we are in the throngs of a widely-documented pediatric obesity crisis in the United States. As youth participate in more formal sports, they and their peers have never been heavier.  So why does this paradox exist?  For one, it is clear that meals, whether a child is involved in youth sports or not, are increasingly found at locations outside of home and in the car.  A hot dog, a bag of Funyuns, and twenty ounce Coke were never intended to be a nutritious dinner.  Secondly, as young athletes stay out later and later for games, they are sacrificing what researchers are finding ties into almost every health marker: sleep.  Evidence indicates that chronic sleep deprivation significantly affects the hormones that control appetite suppression and induction, and is closely tied to obesity.  Meanwhile, parents are also sacrificing in both areas, leaving them feeling increasingly strained and unhealthy in ways that contradict a model of good lifestyle choices.

But findings also suggest more subtle causes of the obesity-sports paradox. As adults increasingly structure sports for kids, it seems that youth are finding it more difficult to take the initiative on their own.  As I noted in a previous article, the lost art of play has serious consequences. If kids stop seeing activity as a part of their being, and instead something they do for a two-hour practice, industriousness is threatened and calories go unburned.  For many, the subsequent boredom leads to an easier source of entertainment, often found on the couch in front of a screen.

But these trends are not confined to children. All of us as parents love to see our kids excel, and frankly, often understandably feel safer when they are supervised in a formal setting.  For many parents of today, the thought of children playing at a local sandlot is fraught with fears of victimization, even if statistics generally do not support (or contradict) the heightened claims of risk. Some parents acknowledge early youth enrollment satisfies a sense of guilt or obligation they feel in not having more time to dedicate to their kids. Some feel that sports help their kids develop critical skills, such as physical abilities, self-reliance, and determination.  And for many parents, athletic leagues can ultimately become part of social networks, which provide built-in opportunities for community.  Reasons vary, but as parents, we just want the best for our kids.  The serious question remains whether early participation and intensive youth sports really satisfies this goal.

As a young boy, I enjoyed being active and playing different games. I came from a family where my father had been fortunate to attend college on a football scholarship. By the time I reached high school, sports had become a big part of my life and my parents enjoyed watching us play. When people asked me what I missed the most about high school, it was certainly the competitive sports scene.  But as I reflect on my athletic career, I realized that what I appreciated the most during my grade school years was the sense of activity and camaraderie that came with the game.  Dusty trophies of past acclaim and participation sit in the closet and on the shelves at my parent’s house.  Still, like some, I retain an athlete mindset to this day.

Yet in reflecting further on the wisdom of John Wooden, and considering my experiences and that of others, I have come to believe a few things. Sports provided one avenue to express the values and drive that came from a more important place—my family and my home. It was never a replacement for either. I was fortunate that although my parents valued our athletic endeavors, it never undermined the structure, and the purpose, and the rhythm of our day.  When it came time to perform, others certainly outstripped me at times.  Some went on to play college athletics.  A couple of rare ones went on further.  But within a few years, we all came back to the same place, with a long, hopefully active life, laid out in front of us.

I realize that others are not so fortunate, and that sports hypothetically provide where much has been lost. But I don’t feel that athletics will provide a missing link unless a family and a framework are found along the way.  Sports provide an outlet for a particular drive and relationships that may encourage and support.  But it seems a misnomer to believe that they can replace what is not learned and lived during the rest of the day, just as many of our successful athletes still go astray.  And sports must never threaten those factors (see Part IV in the series), especially the parental bond, which we do know are essential for our youth to thrive, today and for years to come.

Today, I watch my kids kick the ball around the yard and throw the Frisbee. I love to see them active and running around.  I am envious of the freedom they exude in their play, even interspersed with tears of pain and frustration.  I see my sons’ early competitiveness emerge as my daughter partakes in a more relational, hesitant way.  We have promised our oldest kids that next year, in fourth grade, they will be able join formal leagues.  These days, games happen in the yard or in the park.  The driveway and the shrubs mark the outer edges.  I know that the days to come will get longer and the sports commitment will be more demanding. I know that Amy and I will have many conversations ahead in discerning where this athletic scene will lead.  But, for now, it is time to eat as dinner is awaiting and bedtime is not far off.  Down the street, the lights are just coming on for another night of fall ball.  A minivan races by.  It is good to be home.

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